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South China Sea, Human Rights at Fore as Asean Ministers Meet

China claims the highlighted portion of the South China Sea. Many other governments also claim all or part of the South China Sea.

The ministers discussed the thorny subject of the South China Sea, where four member states having overlapping claims with China.

PHNOM PENH - Asean foreign ministers met in Phnom Penh on Saturday, ahead of a major Asean Summit to be hosted by Cambodia beginning Sunday, where contentious issues like the South China Sea and a regional human rights declaration are on the agenda.

The ministers discussed the thorny subject of the South China Sea, where four member states having overlapping claims with China. Chinese and Asean leaders will meet next as week, in an East Asia Summit. Officials say they are making progress on talks over the sea, which ended in failure in an Asean meeting in July.

No decisions were made during Saturday’s discussions, though member states want to move forward on a Declaration of Conduct for the contentious area, Kao Kim Hourn, secretary of state for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told reporters following Saturday’s meeting. Discussions now focus on maintaining momentum for dialogue, he said.

Cambodia would like to see Asean and China work together to ensure the Declaration of Conduct, which would provide a maritime code of conduct for all parties in the sea in hopes of preventing future clashes, despite ongoing questions of claims there, Kao Kim Hourn said. Cambodia wants to ensure work is progressing on the code and “that we’re moving forward on this,” he said.

Surin Pitsuvann, Asean secretary-general, of Thailand, said talks on a code of conduct are “in progress.”

Indonesia has proposed setting up a “hotline” among Asean states regarding the sea to be aware of any incident there and respond to it as quickly as possible, he said.

The South China Sea contains major shipping lanes for international trade and has been the site of naval standoffs between China and Asean states, leading to concern it could become a flashpoint for escalating conflict.

“What Indonesia is now looking for, while we’re working on the [code of conduct], is the commitment on the part of Asean and China to open a hotline of communications,” Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa told reporters. “So if there were to be an incident in the future…we can commit to have communications and have dialogues if there were to be disputes.”

Another major items on Asean’s agenda is a Declaration of Human Rights, which officials expect to pass but which rights organizations say does not meet international standards and could excuse abusive practices by Asean states.

Sixty-four NGOs have signed a petition calling for the delay of the declaration’s passage, saying it is flawed and unclear, especially in the approach to human rights in terms of national security.

“They should take more time to consult, but ultimately revise the draft,” Shiwei Ye, a Bangkok-based representative of the International Federation for Human Rights, told VOA Khmer.

The current draft, which has less provisions for rights than international norms, “would be a disaster for human rights in the region,” he said.

Suon Bunsak, chief secretary for the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, a consortium of local rights groups, told VOA Khmer that provisions in the draft over national security and public morality leave too much room for interpretation. Authorities can shut down a peaceful demonstration merely by calling it a threat to national security, he said. “That’s an argument to prevent the freedom of expression, as well as peaceful association.”

And an unclear declaration can cause schisms within Asean itself, as different countries interpret it differently, said Ou Virak, head of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights. State leaders might use the declaration as their “foundation” for rights, he said, but local rights groups are going to look to international norms, such as those provided by the United Nations, as their foundation.

Provisions for rights that fall below those applied by some 200 countries around the world already would be “shameful” for Asean, he said. “And a country in the bloc that tries to defend the improper declaration will be mocked and condemned,” he said.

Asean officials say they are moving forward on passage of the declaration.

“The Asean Declaration of Human Rights is not a declaration of the NGOs or civil society,” Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong told reporters Thursday. “It is a declaration of Asean…which protects and promotes human rights more effectively.”

Natalegawa, of Indonesia, told reporters Saturday that officials are working to make the declaration complimentary to international norms. “The implementation of the human rights declaration must be in accordance with the universal declaration of human rights,” he said.